The real Daniel Blake – and why stories matter

‘Justice must be done, not just be seen to be done.’ Words fitting for the Justice Alliance’s Vigil for Justice demo last week, only they came from one of my judges in Friday’s possession list. The landlord wanted to evict even though the tenant was in prison. She had asked to attend the hearing, but was refused by the prison service because (in their words) it was ‘just a housing case’.

She was lucky I was duty solicitor. It was a complex case and it needed an experienced advocate. But from September 2018, it’s unlikely I will be there, as the Ministry of Justice has introduced price competition and ‘bundled up’ the court duty contracts into bigger contracts. It will have a huge impact on access to justice and wasn’t a rational decision. The Administrative Court, may possibly think the same, having given permission to judicially review the decision, with a hearing in May.

A large proportion of the housing duty schemes are operated by law centres, which are small not-for-profit charities. We have very little money, but we believe strongly in access to justice for all. I love that we are punching above our weight and taking on the government.

It was for this reason I got involved with the Justice Alliance. I knew the criminal lawyers had fought off price competition in the past, but no-one seemed to notice the sly introduction of competitive tendering in the housing duty contracts. They are a tiny part of the housing world, which is in turn, a tiny part of the civil world. No one seemed to notice and I wanted to make some noise.

Being part of the Justice Alliance has brought home just how much we work in our silos. I knew about the court closures and the criminal fee reductions, but I understood little of the cuts in the prison budget, the court staff redundancies, the privatisation of the probation service. Austerity justice –  the 40% cut to the budget over the last decade – has put the whole system in crisis. The law is well and truly broken.

We need to do something to stop this but we can’t do it alone. We need the public to see the effects of the cuts. The human stories flowing from the ‘hostile environment’ have touched the nation. The Guardian journalist Gary Younge was right when he wrote: ‘With Windrush, Theresa May mistook a national treasure for an easy target.’

Stories are powerful. They are the way we will get the public to notice, to listen, to care. So that’s why the Justice Alliance made a set of five two-minute videos that can be played on social media.

Meet Tony and Sam:

Tony Rice
Tony, otherwise known as the real ‘Daniel Blake’. He’s one of many. He was forced to live on £7.98 per day for 212 days, after being sanctioned by the DWP. He had failed to show up for an appointment, that he didn’t know he had, because he didn’t know how to use a computer. He had been stabbed in an unprovoked attack that has left him with a disability. His doctor signed him off work after he developed depression and anxiety, but the DWP doctor found him fit for work, never having met him.

Because civil legal aid was cut in 2013 he couldn’t get help with his benefit problem. He was living off foodbank handouts and his rent arrears were growing. It was only at the point of crisis, when he was facing eviction, that advice for housing was available. By this time his rent arrears were £10,000.

The figures tell the story: In 2012-13 the number of disabled people helped with their benefit case was 29,801, and in 2016-17 it was 308. If legal aid was available for welfare benefits, as it used to be, then Tony would have been helped long before he was in crisis. The same can be said for the Windrush cases, if immigration law had still been available, they may not have suffered so much.

Sam Hallam
Sam was just 17 years old when he was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was locked up until he was 24 years old. He has been refused compensation on two occasions. Watching Sam and his mother, Wendy, speak I was moved to tears. I have two boys of similar age. It could happen to them. His mother never gave up campaigning and Sam says this kept him going. On his 21st birthday she hired an open top bus and drove to the prison where Sam was detained. She wanted to celebrate his birthday with him, and this was the closest she could get. Despite the rain, his family and friends sat on top.

This miscarriage of justice comes at a huge cost: For Sam losing those formative years, for his mother who felt ‘tortured’ throughout his detention, and his father who killed himself while Sam was in prison because of the stress.

Why wasn’t the evidence disclosed showing Sam earlier in the evening of the murder in the pub with his father supporting his account? How did Thames Valley Police, instructed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, find 14 people at the scene of the murder who told them that Sam was not there? And why is he not entitled to compensation for this tragedy.

These stories aren’t unusual. Tony and Sam are the lucky ones. They had brilliant lawyers acting in their cases – and, in the case of Sam Hallam, a brilliant campaign from friends and family. Ones that go the extra mile, or hundred miles, without proper remuneration, but because they care.

The justice crisis isn’t just with civil and criminal law though. We know that 250 courts have closed and 5,000 jobs have been cut across the court service. There are 80,000 men and women in prison in the UK, more than anywhere in western Europe. Staffing levels are so low that they are becoming increasingly dangerous places. And when people are released, they are not adequately monitored. Since the privatisation of the probation service there has been 1800 job losses and serious concerns about lack of supervision.

We need a properly funded justice system. Let’s begin the fight for it together.

Watch all five videos share them with your friends, and join the Justice Alliance campaign here.

Support the Law Centre Network with their crowdfunding for the judicial review here.

Sue James

About Sue James

Sue has been a housing solicitor for more than 20 years. She has worked in a number of law centres and private practice. In addition she was a mental health solicitor representing the most vulnerable people detained under the Mental Health Act. She has a strategic role in the running of Hammersmith Law Centre where she is currently employed as the responsible legal officer

There are 1 comments

  1. Barbara Williams |

    Please may I ask you to consider representation/advice for people whose relatives have died whilst in the care – and I use the term loosely – in the care of the NHS? My solicitor says mine criminal matter. Husband died following morphine injection, despite multiple warnings of morphine-intolerance throughout medical notes. No autopsy, no inquest .

    Reply

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